The saying and the seeing

In making sculpture, an artist can contrive relations between what a thing is and what it appears to be. Such relations manifest themselves in so far as we become conscious of them in looking at what a sculptor has made. To take a historical example, think of Michelangelo's ''Moses.'' Executing that work meant giving a block of marble the form of a seated man. Even when you look at a photograph of the sculpture, you can feel your attention shift between seeing the marble as Moses and seeing the ''Moses'' as (mere) marble. The same sort of tension between the aspects under which a thing may be seen occurs no less vividly in modern and contemporary art, as you can see in this untitled work by Joel Shapiro.

No one who looks at this simple solid can help seeing it sometimes as a house inverted, resting on one of its roof slopes. Small in scale and meant to be placed on the floor, there is nothing architectural about this object except its shape. Shapiro deliberately gave the work this shape so that it would have a representational aspect, that is, so that we would have a way of seeing it representationally. The houselikeness of this sculpture is so slight that it cannot keep us from seeing the work as a simple hunk of bronze as soon as we cease to think of it as a little house. It is not an illusion contrived by the artist that causes us to see this sculpture as the figure of a house, but his choice of a specific shape. Shapiro made the work's houselike aspect harder to grasp by placing its ''recognizable'' shape upside down, forcing us to feel the decision involved in our recognition.

To see this sculpture as an inverted house, you have to think of it as something miniature. Think of it instead as something ''actual size'' and you will be able to see in it another representational aspect, that of a recumbent head. It is easier to see the work under this aspect when you are aware of historical precedents in the art of Constantin Brancusi. Shapiro acknowledges admiration for Brancusi's work, including his ''Sleeping Muses'' and other sculptures in which he used a single ovoid shape in polished bronze or marble to represent a head in repose.

Shapiro's stylization of the head is so much more severe than Brancusi's that we may fail to see this figurative aspect of his sculpture altogether. While Brancusi's heads of seventy years before look like organic forms streamlined, the rigid geometry of Shapiro's piece suggests a view of human consciousness as forcibly reconciled to the regularity and regimentation of a technologized world.

The economy of form and meaning in Shapiro's sculpture show you what is meant when the term ''minimal'' is used appreciatively.

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